Expensive Ex-presidents

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First, the record of private gain: President Eisenhower profited handsomely from his memoirs, and left an estate of one million dollars on his death in 1969. Lyndon Johnson was already comfortably wealthy from Texas business interests—his estate was valued somewhere between fifteen and twenty million dollars in 1973—but he also received a million-dollar advance for his memoirs and signed a contract that gave him three hundred thousand dollars for exclusive interviews with a television network. Richard Nixon, an involuntary White House retiree, was paid a million dollars for four television interviews with David Frost. Not to mention the advance on his memoirs.

Gerald Ford received an undisclosed sum for his memoir, A Time to Heal , served on the board of directors of at least a dozen corporations, and got eighteen to twenty thousand dollars per appearance on the lecture circuit. As he put it, “Once a man has been President he becomes an object of curiosity.” Jimmy Carter, not previously known as a writer, has published three books since 1981. So Ronald Reagan, indeed, is following a precedent of “cashing in” on the office, but it is a relatively recent one.

Meanwhile, Congress was enlarging its provisions for the taxpayer-supported comfort and safety of ex-Chiefs. In 1963 a Presidential Transition Act allowed a departing President $300,000 in tax-free expense money for his readjustment to normality. In short, he receives Treasury help in compiling the memoir for which he will receive a sturdy publisher’s advance. Subsequently the allowance was raised to a million dollars. In 1970 it was decreed that the ex-President’s salary should be equal to that of an officer of the cabinet—$99,500 at the start of 1989, and likely to rise soon. The figure for staff support has gone to a nontaxable $150,000.

Since 1968 ex-Presidents and their wives or widows get Secret Service protection for life—or until the widows remarry. Their minor children are guarded until age sixteen. In addition to all this, since 1955 the federal government has been staffing and maintaining the special libraries that have housed the papers of each outgoing President since Hoover. The buildings themselves are put up with private funds, and while they are admittedly useful research centers, each is also a museum and de facto memorial—a paper pyramid—to a particular ex-President.

By “cashing in” on the office, Ronald Reagan is, indeed, following a precedent, but it is a relatively recent one.

In addition to the monetary benefits, ex-Presidents now have a kind of quasi-official status as national representatives. They may address the Senate (though only Harry Truman has done so, in 1964), and they are sometimes sent abroad for state solemnities. At the funeral of Anwar Sadat in 1981, all three living “exes,” Nixon, Carter, and Ford, were in attendance.

Since we now have four living ex-Presidents, we all may expect to bear a considerable burden for sustaining the dignity of the office in the future. As the national life-span increases, there will be more ex-Presidents, living longer—although the record number is five. (The year was 1861, when Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan all were alive.)

All of this is connected to the accelerating tendency to make the President a kind of symbolic democratic monarch.

The Founding Fathers gave the matter some inconclusive thought, never being quite certain themselves of what limits they wanted to set on presidential power and privilege. At the Constitutional Convention, when the question of how many terms a President might serve was under discussion, some wondered aloud and nervously about how ambitious ex-Presidents would handle the return to ordinariness. George Mason thought it would be a very good thing for them. The rights and interests of the people were his “pole star,” he said, and he held it “as an essential point, as the very palladium of Civil liberty, that the great officers of State, and particularly the Executive should at fixed periods return to that mass from which they were at first taken, in order that they may feel & respect those rights & interests.”

Benjamin Franklin suggested to worriers that it was not a comedown after all: “In free Governments the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors & sovereigns. For the former therefore to return among the latter was not to degrade but to promote them.”

Gouverneur Morris, the convention ironist, observed that our future Executives would have “too much modesty not to be willing to decline the promotion.” He was right, of course, considering the number of incumbents who run again. But Franklin’s pleasant little conceit may have come true in a sense he did not imagine. Nowadays most ex-Presidents, financially speaking, will in fact be “promoted.” And unfortunately for George Mason, they are far from returning in status to “that mass from which they were at first taken.”